“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” from director Mira Nair, is clumsily plotted and rather labored. It’s obvious where it’s going and takes its time getting there. Even worse, the dialogue is always right on the nose; that is, people don’t speak as they do in life, obliquely and with hints, but rather say everything they’re thinking and feeling, as if knowing the audience is listening.
2 1/2 (out of five stars)
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland
Rated: R for language, some violence and brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
It takes place in Pakistan, where a young professor (Riz Ahmed) is suspected of taking part in a terrorist abduction. Questioned by a CIA operative (Liev Schreiber), he decides to tell the story of his life, either to buy time so that his nefarious activities might find fruition, or because he is an extremely talkative guy. With a movie like this, the latter is easily as possible as the former.
So the film follows two timelines — the present, in which he talks and talks, and the past, in which we see him in his previous life: He goes to an Ivy League school. He is recruited (by a wonderfully creepy Kiefer Sutherland) to become a master of the universe in Manhattan, buying up and busting out companies for a billion dollar firm. Then comes Sept. 11, 2001, and attitudes change toward a young Muslim man in New York. Suddenly there are funny looks and cavity searches at the airport.
But our hero has an odd reaction 9/11. He decides to get back to his roots. Formerly a smooth-faced, clean-shaven fellow, he takes this as a great time to grow a scraggly beard, and the beard completely transforms his appearance.
Much of what follows is a catalog of injustices unfairly visited on a young Muslim man in the panic following 9/11. Yet audience sympathy would be with this fellow more if he only helped himself a little bit. Clearly, 90 percent of his troubles would vanish in an instant if he just went out and bought a 5-blade Schick Hydro, or, if they didn’t have them in those days, a Quattro. For that matter, even a dull pair of scissors and a little orange and white disposal Bic might have done the trick. It’s not as if he weren’t clean-shaven before the attacks.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” shows Western audiences how America and American behavior look from a Muslim prospective, and that has value. So does Riz Ahmed’s performance. But the value of the story as a whole is boxed in, in the sense that there’s a problem either way. If it turns out that the protagonist isn’t a terrorist, then the movie is no longer about the making of a terrorist. It’s just about the journey of some guy, which is nice for him, but why are we watching him?
Conversely, if he is a terrorist, that’s problematic, too, in that his experience, as depicted here, is too against the pattern to be emblematic. What terrorist starts out by making millions on Wall Street? At the same time, his story seems, by design (that is, authorial design), to drag him through the worst of America: He finds himself in a disgusting, though lucrative, business, and his relationship with an American blueblood (Kate Hudson) goes to such a place of colossal insult as to defy all credulity.
Yet in between the nonsense there are occasional truths not often encountered in movies, and these make “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” not interesting or entertaining, but somewhat substantial nonetheless.